Pomona Lake’s 50th: Memorial service to remember Whippoorwill tragedy

The Whippoorwill after it capsized in 1978. The Topeka Capital-Journal file photo.

The Pomona Lake 50th Anniversary Committee is holding a Whippoorwill memorial service at 6:30 p.m. June 17, at the Pomona Lake control tower at the south end of the dam.  Services will be conducted by area ministers and community members to recognize those that lost their lives 36 years ago on June 17, 1978, after a tornado struck the Whippoorwill and caused it to capsize. 

The anniversary committee has scheduled the service to remember the tragic boat accident that is a part of the 50-year history of Pomona Lake.

“We invite the community to attend and be a part of this memorial service, “ said David Green, Pomona and Melvern lakes’ operations manager.

The anniversary committee has issued a special invitation to family members and friends of the 16 victims to attend the service.  They may participate in the service at their request during the acknowledgement of each individual.

Those that lost their lives on the Whippoorwill were: Grace Vogel, 67, Topeka; Sandy Vogel Wright, 40, Topeka; Melissa Wright, 9, Topeka; Judy Patterson, 25, and unborn infant, Topeka ; Dr. Norman Schwartz, 48, Prairie Village, dentist; Tina Kramer, 17, Quenemo, Playhouse staff member; Norris E. Weiss, 47, Topeka; Caroline Hartwich, Topeka; Mildred Lilly, 79, Topeka; Charles Griffin, 33, Topeka; Pamela Nelson, 28, Wichita; Donald Hawthorne, 35, Merced, California; Muriel Fuller, 66, Madison, Wis. (Emporia), staff member ESU; Sarah Reed, 64, Emporia, staff member ESU; Zubaidah Isa, Indonesia (Emporia), staff member ESU.

Refreshments will be provided by Vassar United Methodist church members immediately after the service.

For more information, contact Green at 785-453-2201, or Pastor Kathy Symes,  913-669-6979, or Ben Streeter, Vassar United Methodist Church.

The Whippoorwill showboat as it cruises Pomona Lake in the 1970s. The Topeka Capital-Journal file photo.

The Whippoorwill showboat as it cruises Pomona Lake. The Topeka Capital-Journal file photo.

The National Weather Service continues to use the story of the Whippoorwill as a reminder that all tornadoes, large or small, demand respect. The story is published on the National Weather Service website as follows:

1978 Whippoorwill Tornado Disaster

On June 17, 1978, a tornado struck very near the Whippoorwill showboat on Lake Pomona, in Osage County, causing it to capsize. This very unusual and unique disaster resulted in 16 deaths and 3 injuries among the 58 passengers and crew aboard. Although the deaths were due to drowning when the vessel overturned, they were attributed to the tornado; making it one of the worst tornado death tolls in Kansas history. Nationwide media coverage was focused on Kansas and this tornado for many days after the tragic event. People who boarded the Whippoorwill for an evening of fun and entertainment, likely never imagined what a historical catastrophe they were in for.

The tornado formed very rapidly around 7 p.m., cut an erratic but generally eastward path about 8 miles long before dissipating near the small community of Michigan Valley. Witnesses sighted three funnels rotating around the main vortex, which itself was no more than about 150 yards wide. Some people reported more than one tornado in the area.

Although damage was also reported to campers, trees and power lines in and near the lake, this tornado should have been relatively insignificant and generally the “norm” in Kansas. The exception occurred when the winds from the tornado capsized the Whippoorwill showboat causing the 16 deaths. This incident shows that all tornadoes, no matter how small or short-lived, demand our respect, and have the potential to cause damage, injuries and fatalities, even when they do not make a direct strike.

The NWS report about the 1978 Whippoorwill tragedy is here. More information about Pomona Lake is here.

Whippoorwill photos published with permission of The Topeka Capital-Journal.


6 Responses to Pomona Lake’s 50th: Memorial service to remember Whippoorwill tragedy

  1. OsageWayne says:

    It was a nice memorial service. Rhonda Kemble's singing eased the sadness of the occasion. Thanks to those who spoke and dropped flowers in the water in remembrance of the victims.

  2. Lynn Vogel says:

    Thank you very much for remembering the victims of the Whippoorwill. My mother, niece and sister perished; my father, nephew and I survived. Our lives were forever changed and the many tornado events over the past several years keep our memories of that day alive. My father passed away in 1983, never quite recovering from the losses of that night. My nephew now lives with his family in Texas and I and my family are in NJ. Every June 17th is a special day of remembrance for us.

  3. Aaron Bien says:

    We were in Ottawa playing softball when the sirens went off. When we got on the overpass you could see the tornado. We followed the Sheriff out checked on my parents who seen the funnel from where they were camping by the State side Swimming area, and then I went and helped all that evening till well into the night. In all the emergencys I have worked in my life, this was the one that I seem to be able to remember so vividly. My thoughts and prayers go out to all whom were involved!

  4. Janice Wise Owen says:

    Just the other day w few of my friends & I were telling tornado stories & when it came my turn, that was the one I told. My ex & I had a dairy farm in Melvern Ks just off I 35 and I was relaxing on the porch after finishing up the dairy barn when I noticed a funnel dipping down then pulling back up after a bit. Later on evening news I learned that t had capsized the Whippoorwhill…that is something will NEVER forget…my heart goes out to all those that were impacted that fateful evening O:)

  5. Paul says:

    My sister and I were crew members that night…it's still quite vivid in my mind….and no less disturbing.

    • Debbie Bauck says:

      Thank you Paul. Tell Patricia I said Hi. I still remember that night as if it had just happened too. My sister and I were both working on the Whippoorwill that night too. I kept looking for her until I was taken off in a boat. Our family found out the next morning that she was one of the ones who died. We miss her dearly.

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